As I started writing this book review, this item popped up on Benny Pieser’s ‘Newsbytes’ at the GWPF:
The only British company in the running to build a new generation of atomic power plants has threatened to pull out due to uncertainty over the government’s energy policy – a move that could imperil the country’s nuclear renaissance. Executives at Centrica, which is planning to build a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset in a joint venture with EDF Energy, have warned Whitehall officials that the plan hangs by a thread and could be scrapped if the company does not receive assurances about the future price of nuclear-generated electricity. –Guy Chazan and Jim Pickard, Financial Times, 22 April 2012
Which got me thinking about climate sceptics who are quick to condemn subsidy paid to the wind and solar industries, but prefer to talk about (future) improvements to nuclear reactor design rather than sordid financial details. This bedazzlement with technology and unconcern with cost one of the themes in this new book by Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop.
The rather hyped up title, ‘The Doomsday Machine’ may put some people off, and it seems Fred Pearce of the Guardian and New Scientist didn’t read far beyond the dust jacket before declaring the book ‘hysterical’ and denouncing it’s author’s as ‘climate deniers’. And it has to be said the early pages do come across as polemical and a bit breathless.
However, for those who want a deeper perspective, there is plenty of substance here once the book gets into its stride, with an in depth assessment of the nuclear industry, its technology, financing, realpolitik, health and safety concerns and public costs both financial and societal. The main claims made and facts highlighted are referenced, many by web addresses as well as publication details, and a useful glossary helps you sort your PWR’s from your EPR’s and your EDF’s from your EoN’s. The book doesn’t bore you with too many tables of figures or lengthy quotes from dull official reports though. It is written to be read through, and all the better for it.
The writing is clear and direct, engaging and well varied with historical details, up to the minute news about the state of play around Fukushima’s smoking remains, and carefully researched examples concerning offical pronouncements versus reality.This thoroughness is hidden beneath catchy and provocative chapter titles such as ‘Too cheap to meter’ and ‘Radiation is harmless’ which will likely set teeth on edge among those who are for the industry. It’s a shame, because the content is worthy, and the likelihood is that some of the people who should read this book may skip it because of the provocation of the layout.
When I wrote a 3000 word report on the peaceful use of nuclear power back in the early 80′s as part of the coursework for my engineering qualifications, I concluded that the industry was primarily geared to military purposes and the electricity generated was an expensive by-product. Things have changed as I discovered by reading this book. These days, nuclear warheads are being converted into fuel for commercial reactors generating around 2.5% of the world’s energy needs (around 6% of its consumed electricity). It’s still expensive though, and that’s with most of the cost (decommissioning) shunted of the books to some nebulous future date, 135 years from plant closure in the UK. While I was researching my piece, I was amused to discover a document prepared by the UKAEA that stated that Plutonium levels in the river estuary south of Windscale (renamed Sellafield, or ‘sunny meadows’ as the locals call it, after the fire in ’58) were “around normal for natural background levels”. There is no ‘natural background level’ for trans-uranic radioactive metals…
You are left in no doubt about the viewpoint the authors are coming from, but concerning this industry there is little middle ground to stand on, you are either for or against nuclear power. If you need balance, buy a pro nuclear power viewpoint to sit alongside ‘The Doomsday Machine’ on your bookshelf. What you do get though, is an up to date, broadly considered and well written book which makes you think about just who benefits from the propping up of this eye-poppingly expensive and dangerous industry. And who pays the price, willingly or not.
Talkshop rating: Recommended